Legendary Wynton Marsalis Shows Zellerbach What Jazz is All About

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Not everybody in the jazz world likes Wynton Marsalis. With nine Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize to his name, no one faults his technical virtuosity. The awards attest to his status as a leading figure in jazz today, and therein lies the rub, a leading figure who, many say, doesn't lead forwards but back. For Marsalis, progressive jazz stopped being jazz sometime around 1965. Modern jazz deserves more respect than Marsalis grants it. However, the tunes in his repertoire are known as Standards for a reason-the shoulders upon which modern jazz stands-timeless exponents of the jazz canon, as brilliant on the bandstand today as ages ago.

Saturday evening's performance at Zellerbach offered little challenge to the preservationalist criticism levied against Marsalis. Playing through a program billed as "Ellington Love Songs," the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Marsalis, rarely ventured outside of a two-decade span (1925-1945). Confined not only by composer (and therefore time), but also by type (love songs), the set list threatened to seduce the audience into a stupor. However, everyone knows what's really behind love, and it usually only puts you to sleep afterwards.

The band members' crisp ties (matched according to instrument section), and Marsalis' own charm barely veiled the passion implicit in every love song. Granted, the love of the '30s and '40s isn't the same as the love from the '60s on-those who criticize Marsalis' temporal bias conceive of jazz as the sweaty, loud, explosive form with little respect for rules, the way Miles Davis no doubt fucked. The critics perhaps forget that they themselves are proof that, despite the courtship and courtesy of past times, it all led to the same end. The opening song set the tone, Marsalis playing solo trumpet, half-valving the notes not emotionlessly but with debonair composure, the tone muted and strained through the horn, a tone you could introduce to your parents and then take home to undress. The orchestra played to match, each song swinging as hard as a lover's bed.

Nearly halfway through a 22-city tour, each night playing through the same set, the orchestra showed little sign of exhaustion. Even the 78-year-old saxophonist Joe Temperley (the only JLCO member to have played in Duke Ellington's own band) ripped into a solo ballad, his tone patriarchal, strong and steady with the confidence of decades.

Big Band music is the most classical of all jazz forms, though if it's played classically it doesn't sound like jazz. In the words of Marsalis, "If you play it reverently, you not really playing it." The trick is in lighting a fire within each song hot enough to burn the refined edges of classicality into a charred, hot, improvisatory blaze. Most songs pulled this off well, though occasionally an arrangement swung too much like a pendulum, mechanistic, regular, the ember of what should be hot.

For the ember to still be burning at all after so many performances-and with many more on the horizon-warrants praise, especially on behalf of the engine of it all, drummer Ali Jackson. With a tonal variety that defied the confines of the drumset before him, Jackson painted colors into songs impossible to imagine, red-greens and radiant grays, each perfectly suited to the ballad, blues or big band swing tune at hand.

The criticism that Marsalis endures, the charge that he confines jazz under museum glass, to be handled, experts only, found little purchase last night. Granted, the music remained true to a time long past, but if these critics removed the blinders from their peripheral vision, they might see that, though Marsalis doesn't move forward temporally, he moves forward tonally, each piece richer than ever, the directionality of progress not onwards, but outwards and inwards, exploded through untold dimensions, a jazz still very much alive.

Toot Ian's horn at [email protected]

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